How to Write Science Fiction by Bob Shaw

41k0clrvd2bl-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_Bob Shaw (1931 – 1996) was a science fiction writer who is known for his highly imaginative and evocative stories full of creative worlds and subjects, and for his proactive role within the science fiction world with fan publications and conventions.

His works have won many awards and he has an extensive collection of published fiction and non-fiction. When he wrote How to Write he had written four short story collections and twenty two novels, with his books translated into fourteen languages. He has twice one the Hugo Award (prestigious awards given annually to the best works of science fiction or fantasy achievements of the previous year.)

His is an impressive resume, and he brings his wealth of experience and literary knowledge to the apprentice writer in this book. He assumes the reader has a grasp of grammar and syntax and already knows the basics of good story telling. This book is not for novice writers – it is for writers who want to write good science fiction. And in this task, it is eloquently and simply written in a clear but witty style.

It covers the basics of science fiction such as plotting and characterization (both treated somewhat differently in science fiction stories as the narrative depends on concepts and imagery heavily, while characters are often less complex without wandering into two dimensions,) world building and technological concepts, and the fundamentals of pursuing a career in science fiction novels or short stories.

This is an enjoyable read, as Shaw’s famous wit comes into play frequently throughout the book. He also shows an affinity for reminding the reader of his achievements and his excellence as a writer with a strong pride that borders on narcissistic arrogance.

An excellent book for any writer – amateur, novice or even accomplished – to read from one of the Masters of Science Fiction and get clear and direct suggestions and instructions for creating successful science fiction stories.

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Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne

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Reader’s Digest edition translated by Philip Schuyler Allen

Twenty Thousand Leagues, written in 1870, is arguably one of the greatest classic Science Fiction books written by a man whom many consider to have created the genre of science fiction writing.

A scientist and his servant are rescued at sea by Captain Nemo, a brilliant engineer and captain of the giant submersible ship, the Nautilus. They are held captive onboard the vessel and go with Nemo as he travels the entire world, exploring the seven seas: from volcanic islands to wrecks and ruins, from under water caves to the Antarctic ice shelves and encountering all manner of sea life along the way; both beautiful and hostile. But Nemo holds many secrets, and as the men become resigned to their life at sea they begin to suspect their course has a sinister element.

The copy of the novel reviewed here is a Hardback edition with a gilt cover showing a submarine and purports to contain the complete text of Verne’s original masterpiece. It was translated into English by Philip Schuyler Allen in 1922 and has since been reprinted by Reader’s Digest. This translation is considered by some to be one of the best English translations out there.

1. Biography and Translation

To appreciate the genius that is Twenty Thousand Leagues, we must first understand Jules Verne himself, the history of the book, and the socio-political environment that he was writing in. Jules Verne (1828-1905) was a French author whom, despite his amazing array of adventure stories, is purported to have never left France. This however is inaccurate as, between 1859 and 1887 he traveled between the UK, Scandinavia, Europe and North America.

Twenty Thousand Leagues was just one entry into a series called “The Extraordinary Voyages.” This was to be a most ambitious project that, throughout his career, dominated his works. His aim was to write about the sky, earth, ocean, space, forests, cities and peoples of the world, and to lead the Victorian readers through a journey of ‘the history of the universe’

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In 1873 Mercier Lewis translated Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: An Underwater Tour of the World) into English for the first time. With this translation nearly a quarter of the original text was cut out, and numerous translation errors were made.

Whatever the reasons for the mistranslations, this became the standard English version for over a century. This version also served for a while as ‘the definitive’ copy, and was used time and time again for adaptations and further translations, spreading the mistakes and diluting the original text rapidly.

Twenty Thousand Leagues has been re-translated time and time again, each time it has improved in some areas whilst suffered in others. Many of the inaccuracies and weak plot-elements previously attributed to Verne have been identified as mistranslations or poor editing by publishers. Unfortunately, these mistakes have often seen Verne’s work labeled as ‘children’s fiction’ and it has often been under appreciated or over looked. It is suggested that if the reader understands French then they should read the original French text, as it offers a more compelling and complex adventure than even the best English copy today.

In 1863 the Polish rose up against the Russian Empire. Nemo was originally to have been a Polish refugee seeking revenge against the Russian Czar who had massacred his family. This character background would have made for a drastically different Nemo, and thus a much darker and more pessimistic adventure. Sales of Verne’s works were very high in Russia, and the editor strongly opposed the character, fearing a sales backlash. After some discussion a compromise was made, and Verne created the character of Nemo as the famous trope that he now is – an enigmatic nobody with a mysterious yet tragic past (Nemo is literally latin for No One.)

2. The Science of Twenty Thousand Leagues

The greatest accomplishment of this book is the sheer scientific accuracy. Verne was one of those historical figures who had an amazing and uncanny ability to accurately predict technological and societal changes (The greatest example being his long-forgotten book Paris in The Twentieth Century – rediscovered a hundred years after it was written.)

The Nautilus is no coal and steam operated ship: It is a giant, iron-clad submersible powered by electricity. The electricity is generated from sodium/magnesium batteries which extract sodium from the ocean itself, and this in turn powers the motors, electric lights and life-support systems; the brilliant Nemo also has weapons that fire “electric bullets” to kill or stun sea-life as necessary.

Among many other ideas included are air-locks, SCUBA equipment, halogen lights, synthetic rubber and wetsuits, electromagnetic coils in the submarine motors, a salt-water distillation plant and even advanced manouvering techniques such as hydroplaning and motorized ballast pumps. The genius of these ideas was in the fact that electricity was still a novel discovery – Michael Faraday only having created the electric dynamo in 1837, and Tesla not fathering the birth of commercial electricity until the end of the 19th Century – and that the oceans had not yet been explored.

Jacques Cousteau was inspired by Twenty Thousand Leagues and even helped refine modern diving apparatus into what became known as SCUBA gear in the 1940’s – about sixty years after Verne described it, and Neoprene (synthetic rubber) wetsuits not being invented until the early 1950’s. In the 1880’s submarines were beginning to be built and the diving systems were functionally identical to those described by Verne. It wasn’t long before the Spanish Navy built the worlds first electric submarine in 1887. The Piezar – a device only recently patented in 2005, and as you read this, currently being implemented into American and European police and military arms, is a non-lethal stun gun that fires an electrically charged shell from a gun that also acts just as Verne imagined.

3. Substance and Style

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Disney’s definitive film based on Verne’s book.

Let’s start with labels – everyone loves labels. Modern readers typically classify Verne’s work as Steampunk – Victorian science fiction where fictional technology was limited by the existing steam-based technology at the time, and where there is a strong Colonial or Victorian aesthetic. I would argue that, to further sub-label Twenty Thousand Leagues, that it would be classified in the two genres of Hard Science (fiction dominated by technically accurate descriptions and calculations and often full of scientific jargon,) and Teslapunk (a relatively obscure offshoot from Steampunk, where technology is dominated and limited by electricity instead of steam but retains the Victorian aesthetic.)

Labels did not apply in Verne’s day. There were simple genres, and this was a Science Fiction Adventure book. No more, no less. The science does not distract from the story, rather it drives and enhances it. Readers in the late 1800’s expected to learn as well as be educated, and this book does that well through fantastic descriptions of the undersea landscapes, lifeforms, sea-life behavior, and even man’s place in the world.

The book takes you to almost every conceivable ocean environment, including some that are purely fiction. The world was still largely unexplored, and the oceans were a mystery, so it is a marvel that the book is still relevant nearly a hundred and fifty years after being written, and with a few exceptions (Sperm whale behaviour, shark hunting behaviours, and the geography and fauna of the South Pole) still remains accurate. The aforementioned inaccuracies are forgivable, as animal behaviours had not properly being studied yet – most of what we know attributed to Cousteau or Attenborough – and the South Pole was not to be reached until Roald Amundsen’s expedition in 1914.

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Verne, ever the Victorian Ideal, was a gentleman and a scholar.

The main characters are a French scientist, his servant, and a crewman from their ship. Initially they are part of a campaign to track down a giant narwhal thought to be attacking ships. Their ship is attacked, they are cast overboard, and are eventually grudgingly rescued by The Nautilus and her crew. The three men are forbidden from leaving the Nautilus and are carried around the world in literature’s greatest undersea milieu story ever.

Professor Pierre Aronnax and his associates Conseil and Ned Land, are our protagonists. Aronnax takes centre stage while the others play supporting roles. Nemo plays a complex character who walks the line between hero, anti-hero and villain – some see him as the main villain of the story, but truthfully the only real antagonist here is the ocean and nature herself. This book was written in a time when man and his inventions were setting out into the world to conquer the land and seas. The chaotic and anarchic qualities of nature made her the perfect foe for a world entering it’s great industrial revolution, where man now functioned on logic and mathematics, and anything that inhibited technological development or discovery was a foe to mankind and to science itself.

The characters are all likable, and though Verne struggles with the humorous scenes, they are few in number and help to develop the characters in ways that prove important to the plot later in the book. Often Victorian writers suffer from flowery language – Verne, however, avoids this pitfall though he does have a tendency to resort to ‘grocery-lists’ when naming species of fish present. In general the prose is fantastic and this version is well translated and a fantastic read. The opening line immediately grabs your attention and holds you until the books end.

The year of grace 1866 was made memorable by a marvelous event which doubtless still lingers in men’s minds. No explanation for this strange occurrence was found, and it soon came to be generally regarded as inexplicable.

When reading this book it is important to think of it in terms of a Victorian audience – all concepts in this book were foreign or radical, and it was an astonishing read to a world yet still dependent on wooden ships powered by coal and steam. Twenty Thousand Leagues leaves the reader, today, just as astounded by the book as it did to readers in 1870, and for the same reasons. The settings and characters are amazing, but the science is absolutely astounding. Twenty Thousand Leagues is timeless – just as in the 1870’s, readers now are still astounded by the science. But rather than be amazed at how far ahead of us it is, we marvel now at how far ahead it was in it’s time – we marvel that Verne could imagine technologies and social constructs, some of which are still now only being developed and refined. And as ever, just like space travel, we will always marvel at the alien underwater world Nemo lives in – because it is one the majority of us shall never explore in our lifetimes and we must rely on works like Verne’s to take us there.

There were several parts of the book which pull you out of the narrative and into the real world due to their shocking nature. For example, the crewman often wear clothes made from fur seal skins, and among the many ocean delights they feast upon, there is one instance where our main characters feast upon roast tortoise and sautéed dolphin livers. Conservationism, though a subject explored briefly and lightly in this book, was still a long way from being a strong movement.

A brilliant read, and a stoic classic that will keep astounding many more generations of readers. Recommended to anyone that loves Steampunk, Adventure Stories, Science Fiction, or Travel Stories.

Sources/Credits

  1. Jules Verne – Wikipedia.
  2. After Word – Clifton Fadiman (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea) ISBN 0-89577-347-3
  3. The North American Jules Verne Society, Inc
  4. 8 Jules Verne Inventions That Came True – National Geographic
  5. Nautilus – Wikipedia

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Mortal Gods by Jonathan Fast (part one)

2271892Her skin was sea-blue, so fine as to be almost transparent. The scintillation of light across it seemed to be caused by some sparkling oil, possibly cosmetic or else an effusion of the flesh. Her neck was long, thin and graceful; her face, surrounded by a halo of fleecy white hair, was dominated by huge almond eyes. Nose and mouth combined in a pliant beak, giving her the profile of a hawk.

And thus are we introduced to the strange and reclusive Alta-Tyberians: a species destined to extinction unless the scientists at MutaGen Corporation can find the fault in Alta-Ty DNA and prevent further generations of deformities and sterility.

Nicholas Harmon – a failed genetic engineer now working as public relations officer – is chosen to accompany Hali, the Alta-Ty emissary who brought the frozen samples of sperms and ova to MutaGen. While she is on Sifra-Mesa Spaceport (cloning and genetic engineering being outlawed sciences on Earth) she witnesses the murders of two Lifestylers – God-like genetic constructs that are worshipped across the galaxy.

It is at this point that the story starts taking twists and turns in unexpected directions. It becomes an inter-dimensional murder mystery layered with political intrigue, social rhetoric, decent action scenes and some crazy adventures that give it a 50’s pulp science fiction vibe.

Nick Harmon is bigoted and chauvinistic and makes no effort to disguise the fact. His attitude towards women and aliens, the casual use of strong swear words in some scenes and the numerous sex scenes (a mix of equally erotic and uncomfortable to read,) make this book a futuristic blaxploitation story but with an updated colour pallet.

This feel is further fuelled by the almost-African features of Hali on the cover and the constant retrofuturistic language and technology used throughout the book. And yet, these elements are redeemed; the science is, still to this day, relatively accurate, the political environment surprisingly close to post 9-11 America (this book being written in 1978), and Nicholas Harmon actually has a deep and thorough character arc.

Pepper this with a mixture of hard-science, biopunk and some technoir elements (imagine The Matrix and Blade Runner and the Alien franchise had a bastard child), and add some intriguing ideas and compelling plot, and you get an incredibly unique and entertaining story.

See Mortal Gods (part two) for an interview with Jonathan Fast.

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Plague Ship by Andre Norton

uiqlqvtPlague Ship is the second novel in a seven volume series about the Free Traders – A crew of Merchants that explore new worlds and make contact with new species to open up trade. The story was published in 1956, and though it is almost sixty years old now, it has aged gracefully.

Set within its own clear continuity, it makes no specific references to style, language or culture that could otherwise date the book. The story makes no effort to try to explain the precise intricacies of its scientific principles; a common pitfall of vintage science fiction that causes the stories to become nonsensical as our evolving knowledge of technology destroys their credibility.

The first chapter does an amazing job setting the scene on the strange and exotic planet of Sargol; its strange cultural practices, its beautiful scenery and its interesting people. Dutiful and honour-bound, the crew of the Solar Queen are all likable and well-written characters. The antagonists are the IS – InterSolar – an interplanetary trading conglomerate that uses corrupt bureaucratic processes and corporate espionage to undermine their competitors and secure trading rights

At its heart this is an under-dog story. It is a tale of over-comming obstacles and challenges, and the battle of truth over injustice. This is a theme we can all relate to at some point in our lives, whether it is in our youths or in our adulthoods.

The story is well paced and broken into three Acts. The first Act deals with the inter-relationships between the Solar Queen, the IS agents trying to sabotage their trade negotiations, and the Salariki – the native inhabitants of Sargol – and there is plenty of well-written exploration of the Salariki culture and their environment.

An interesting species, they remind you of the Na’Vi from James Cameron’s Avatar – a strong, lithe and cat-like alien species that lives in balance with their surrounding environment. An interesting and unique part of these people is their sense of smell. It is so strong that it has guided their cultural evolution, and their customs and currency all revolve around scent and aroma.

The second Act deals with their travels in space as they leave Sargol behind and return to Terra to sell their acquired commodities. It is during this time they begin to fall ill and are labeled by the IS as a Plague Ship. This creates all sorts of conflicts as they have limited resources, their crew numbers are dropping, and they are contractually bound to complete their trade or they lose the sole trading rights to Sargol and forfeit a fortune and are potentially black-listed.

The pace becomes faster as they try to meet the trade deadline whilst struggling to solve the growing mystery of the plague. The plague itself was well-written and keeps you guessing throughout the story as to its origin or cause. Ideas and concepts from the start of the story are reintroduced here and this makes the story feel well rounded.

The third Act is a departure from the first two as it deals with bureaucracy and politics and the legal ramifications of the actions the Solar Queen’s crew in their struggle to survive. There are some nice action scenes in the climax, and then a short but satisfying denouement: the heroes are rewarded, the antagonists get their comeuppance, and the final lines are a tidy segue into the next book:

     “Thank the Spirit of Free Space there’s practically no trouble one can get into on a safe and sane mail route!”

     But Cargo-Master Van Rycke, in spite of knowing the Solar Queen and the temper of her crew, was exceedingly over-optimistic when he made that emphatic statement.

I have read this book several times over the years, and I think each time I read it I enjoy it a little bit more. As previously stated, the characters are likeable and, most important, they are relatable and realistic and so are their actions.

Andre Norton was always a master at creating colorful worlds and creatures and she knew how to make them co-exist in believable ways, and I highly recommend this book for any fan of Science-Fiction or Fantasy.

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The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

0141John Campbell (editor of Astounding Science Fiction, later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) once commented that Science Fiction was incompatible with Mystery. In response to this, Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel – A Science Fiction murder mystery which, to this day, is still one of the best technoir books I have read.

It is set in a distant dystopian future where Earth’s population explosion and limited resources have seen humanity cluster together in self-contained megacities. As humanity dwells in these ‘steel caves’, they become more agoraphobic and xenophobic with each passing generation as people forget about the outdoors and forget about open spaces, the concepts becoming archaic and almost mythical.

Because of lacking resources, these megacities are designed to be efficient in various ways: there is no longer a fiscal currency, only a privilege-based caste system, designed to encourage people to work harder for perks instead of abstract wealth; and amenities are shared to reduce maintenance and energy costs (unless your caste provides you with individual amenities,) and to more efficiently utilise available floor-space.

The story is about detective Elijah Baley who is tasked to solve the murder of a robotics expert who lives outside in a “Spacer Outpost”. The Spacers are Earth emigrants that have colonised many other worlds. They maintain low population densities and use extensive robot labour and as a result they live comfortable lives of wealth and excess.

Elijah, with all his inherited prejudices and biases, is partnered with a robot detective, R. Daneel Olivaw, from the Spacer Outpost. Together they must investigate the murder while trying to remain inconspicuous in an environment of fear; riots and hate-crimes against robots within the city being standard. Not only must he be discrete, but Elijah must succeed in order to preserve his social privileges and prevent being declassified into a lower caste.

The characters are likeable – Elijah’s concerns are actually valid and thought-out, and Daneel is just the right mix of computer and personality. They each have decent character arcs, and their relationship is realistic and sometimes down-right funny.

The settings are incredibly unique (and are the precursors to Asimovs Foundation series, with Daneel Olivaw a recurring character) and are well described, and as with any Asimov fiction, the world is logical and makes sense.

The murder mystery is superb. There are so many suspects, so many dead-ends, red-herrings and false trails, that up until the last chapter I had wrongly deduced the murderer at least half a dozen times, and anytime I came close to the truth, Asimov would throw misleading information at me and I would be just as confused as the characters.

This book is of prime dualities – it is an excellent example of how to write a detective murder mystery, and it is also a great example of how to write intelligent science fiction that takes into account technology and civism and politics and how they change over time.

If you love Asimov then you will enjoy this book. If you have never read Asimov, then this is a great introduction for you, and a great introduction to the Laws of Robotics that define almost all his writings, and influenced generations of writers and film makers.

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